The Highlanders were one of the surprise packages of the recently concluded ISL 2020-21 season.
NorthEast United surprised everyone with their outstanding performance in this season of the Indian Super League (ISL). The Highlanders finished third in the league stages, qualifying for the playoffs for only the second time in their history, a much-improved performance than their ninth-place finish in the previous season. They ultimately suffered a 3-2 defeat on aggregate against ATK Mohun Bagan in the semi-final, thereby getting eliminated from the competition.
In retrospect, it was a season of crests and troughs for the Highlanders. After a bright start to the season, a dip in form saw coach Gerard Nus getting sacked midway through the season. A decision that seemed bizarre at that point in time turned out to be a blessing in disguise after NorthEast United appointed Khalid Jamil as their interim coach. The 43-year old took the Highlanders on a 9-match unbeaten run, thereby helping them qualify for the knockout stages.
Fact Sheet for Indian Super League 2020-21
Gallego returned for his third season with the Highlanders and played an instrumental role in their qualification for the playoffs. The Uruguayan was the creative source in the NorthEast midfield. His dangerous set-piece deliveries and vision to pick out a key pass was a constant threat to the opposition defences. The midfielder scored 4 goals and provided 6 assists in the 14 matches that he played this season. Gallego also created the most chances by any player in the league.
Machado was Gallego’s partner in crime for the season. The Portuguese star is the Highlanders’ top scorer for the season with 7 goals. The winger scored some brilliant goals and always looked like a threat whenever he was on the ball. However, he was not just about the goals as he also attempted many delicious crosses into the opponent’s penalty area. His wonderful brace against Odisha was clearly his best performance of the season.
Lalengmawia, also referred to as Apuia, has had a breakout season with the Highlanders. The Mizo youngster dominated the midfield for the Highlanders. With Camara acting as the pivot, Apuia put in a proper box-to-box display. The 20-year-old looked at ease with the ball on his feet and handled the opponent’s press effortlessly. The youngster managed to finally get his first professional goal in the last game of the league stages, as he unleashed a thunderous strike from outside the box against Kerala Blasters, a goal justifying his class on the pitch. His wonderful display this season won him the Emerging player of the season and a first-ever call-up to the Indian National Team.
Underperformer of the season
Like Apuia, Ninthoi was one of the highlights of NorthEast United’s disappointing 2019-20 season. However, unlike him, the NEUFC number 7 couldn’t carry his good form into this season. The 20-year-old had an underwhelming campaign having played just 13 matches and failing to register a single goal or assist. After the appointment of Khalid Jamil, Ninthoi seldom got opportunities to start.
Ninthoinganba Meetei’s 2020-21 season in numbers
- Appearances: 13
- Goals: 0
- Assists: 0
- Passing Accuracy: 45.14%
- Chances created: 8
1. Mumbai City FC 1-2 NorthEast United
2. NorthEast United 3-1 Odisha FC
3. NorthEast United 2-0 Kerala Blasters
Manager’s Report Card
NorthEast United started their campaign with the Spaniard Gerard Nus at the helm. Although the Highlanders’ got off to a bright start, a 7-game winless streak saw him getting sacked halfway through the season. Nus was replaced by the head of the club’s academy, Khalid Jamil as the interim manager. Jamil’s appointment turned out to be a turning point in the Highlanders’ campaign as his arrival saw them go into a 10-match unbeaten run, winning 6 of those games. This was enough for the Highlanders’ to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in their history.
Khalid Jamil’s efforts as the NorthEast United coach is laudable. He became the first Indian coach to qualify for the ISL playoffs, paving the way for more Indian coaches in future the league. His team displayed a ‘never say die’ attitude throughout the campaign, proving very hard to beat. The 43-year-old must also be given credit for bringing the best out of his players – the Highlanders saw 11 different goalscorers in the whole campaign.
Although he hasn’t been appointed as the permanent boss of the team yet, the former I-league-winning coach has proved this season that he deserves a chance at the top.
Lessons to be learned
After having failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first four seasons, the Highlanders have now done it twice in the last three seasons. NorthEast United’s philosophy of investing smart rather than big and relying on young Indian players have finally started to pay off. The Highlanders had a wonderful season and things could have been even better had it not been for a missed penalty in the second leg of the semifinals.
Throughout the years, we have seen the club change their roster every season. NorthEast United should get rid of this tradition of theirs and try to retain as much of this team as possible for the next season in order to gain consistency. As mentioned earlier, interim coach Khalid Jamil has also proved that he deserves a chance to be the head coach for the upcoming season. NorthEast United should provide him with that opportunity as the players are already familiar with his style of play.
Madhurjya Batshya: Following what happened last season where we finished at the penultimate spot on the table, I did not expect much from the team this season. The transfer window saw quite some changes made to the squad, including bringing in a new manager all the way from Spain. All of it got us all a little excited.
We got off to a good start with a win over the favorites, Mumbai City. The next following games saw us draw against the Blasters and the Gaurs, all while, the team showing signs of great promise. The win against East Bengal brought us right to the top of the table. That’s when I told myself this might be our year. But it wasn’t long before I returned to earth. The team went on a 7 match winless streak. Gerard Nus was relieved of his duties, and Khalid Jamil was appointed as the Interim. Along with it, we lost Kwesi Appiah through injury. Shades of last season was seen, and the glimmer of hope was starting to fade.
But amazingly, Khalid Bhai brought the best NorthEast United of all seasons. All along their 10-match unbeaten run, the team’s chemistry felt different, as if it wasn’t the same unit, scoring goals for fun, giving other teams a taste of the “Bhoot Jolokia fire”. Despite the eventual loss against ATK Mohun Bagan in the semi-final, I am proud of the team, OUR TEAM.
While writing this, it’d be a crime not to mention Lalengmawia, India’s new Boy wonder. What a season by the 20-year-old. His gameplay, maturity, ball holding ability and to ping those long balls, was a joy to watch all through the season. Other standout performers include Khassa Camara, Deshorn Brown, Machado, Ashutosh Mehta, Benjamin Lambot and of course Gallego.
This season was a season to remember for us. Hopefully, everything’s back to normal soon so that we can be back in the Indira Gandhi Stadium cheering the Highlanders next season.